One of the key challenges businesses face is communicating messages when the situation is a difficult one. Senior Strategic Partner, Laura Dillingham, shares this insightful article taken from the book about having difficult discussions and achieving the desired outcome. Enjoy this week’s Power Idea.

Difficult Conversations

By Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen

The following quote is directly from the beginning of this critically important book that parents, friends, families, employees, co-workers, employers…everyone, should read. “Whether we’re dealing with an under performing employee, disagreeing with our spouse about money or child-rearing, negotiating with a difficult client, or simply saying “no,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I love you,” we attempt or avoid difficult conversations every day. No matter how competent we are, we all have conversations that cause anxiety and frustration.”

Let’s start by asking ourselves an important question. What is a difficult conversation? Simply answered it’s ANYTHING you find hard to talk about. A difficult conversation leaves you feeling vulnerable or your self-esteem may be implicated. A difficult conversation may be about a topic that you care deeply about or the stakes are high. A difficult conversation can occur with someone you have a relationship with. The reaction of the other person could be negative and as a result could affect future interactions. The decision to raise an issue most often does not have anything to do with the issue itself, but with the CONSEQUENCE. Take a moment and think about issues you have personally experienced.

Better yet, let’s look at what happens if you don’t bring it up. The kindness of not bringing it up borders on dishonesty. Because the more often you feel you have to be dishonest, the closer you risk to being mean on the next encounter. Why? Because at some point brutal honesty is imminent and chances are you will not handle it well.

You will more than likely never lose the fear or anxiety before or during a difficult conversation, but you can learn to reduce it. Let’s look at how. First you need to understand that a difficult conversation bridges the gap between “Thinking” and “Feeling” IF you learn to understand that each conversation is made up of three conversations SIMULTANEOUSLY. These conversations are:

  1. The “What Happened” Conversation


  1. The “Feelings” Conversation


  1. The “Identity” Conversation

Untangling each conversation is the challenge. We cannot stop these conversations from occurring. However, we can learn to respond to the challenges more effectively. Let’s start by looking at some factors:

  1. The Truth Assumption: “I am right, you are wrong”

So what should you do? First you should stop arguing about who is right. It is not helpful because it blocks the conversation. We argue because we think THEY are the problem (naïve, selfish, controlling, and/or irrational). They argue because they think WE are the problem. How come we don’t think we are the problem or that we have a problem? Because what we say makes sense TO US, yet what the other person says makes sense too. One suggestion may be to start out by being curious about the other person’s story and accepting that they have a story. You don’t have to abandon your story because you are accepting that they have one. Try using and/also rather than either/or.

What we notice or what we see as available information comes from who we are and what we care about. Think of eyewitness stories. We all see the same thing but how we present it is very different.

Let’s look at a work example. Let’s say the organization has 130+ people. In my current position I have budgetary responsibility and because of that I think the organization offers competitive wages and benefits. However, another employee, who makes $12.00 an hour and does not have budgetary responsibility may not agree with me. We both have the same information, i.e., that this employee makes $12.00 an hour and what they have to pay a month for their benefits. BUT we also have information only available to us that the other person does not necessarily know about.

  1. Our Observation
  2. Our Interpretation
  3. Our Conclusion

*You each have this view AND it is NOT the Same

Available Information

Your personal experiences shape how you process available information.

Let’s look at what happens when you are really right. For example, someone uses drugs, which is bad for them. You are right about the health fact. However, is the conversation about that or the worry you have about the other person? And do you always have to understand the other person’s story? (Remember, you are not giving up your story in exchange for understanding theirs.) Another example may be that you have to fire someone. Just because you understand the other person’s story does not necessarily change the decision.

  1. What intentions do you have?

We usually assume the worst about the other person’s intent. Let’s look at an example. You receive an email from a customer that says, “I don’t suppose you have gotten to my order yet.”… It is very easy for us to assume sarcasm or imply the customer is angry, but it is also possible the customer knows you are extremely busy and simply wants to state that. Another example is your manager criticizes you in a meeting openly and you may feel put down. However, when you “offer” suggestions in the same meeting to others they see you as trying to be helpful. Everyone likes to see themselves in a better light. Understanding that “intent” is part of the conversation may help you reduce the defensiveness you may encounter.

When you look for blame it causes disagreement, fear of punishment, denial and usually doesn’t have a lesson. Instead try to understand what went right and what went wrong and explore each person’s contribution. Blaming makes someone the ACCUSED who then has no other choice but to come up with a DEFENSE. Think of a time when you heard someone say, “Let’s do better next time.” Is that a very subtle form of blame?

In today’s workplace we want to stick to the business at hand, frame the problem exclusively, use all of our collective problem solving skills and then when you think you’ve got it solved a FEELING just leaks into the conversation! Emerging feelings in a difficult conversation act like a huge sound barrier and likewise pretending the person you talk to doesn’t have feelings means they can’t listen either. It is really important to deal with the whole person and ignoring feelings does not allow for authentic dialogue.

So let’s take a moment to summarize the key points that were highlighted in this article:

  1. Good people can have bad feelings; you can be angry at someone you care about.
  1. It is NOT easier to say let’s not rock the boat, I don’t want them to think that I am a bad person. Your resentment toward the person will grow and erode the relationship anyway.
  1. Thinking you should or should not feel a certain way doesn’t make it so.
  1. Remember, everyone has feelings in the conversation. Feelings are present so it’s better to just accept it.

The problem is not that we are unable to express our feelings, the problem is that we are unable not to.

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